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Loudspeaker Manufacturers Make their Own Drivers? p3

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Sub assembly lineNowadays, companies in the US, Canada, the UK or Germany rarely—if ever— manufacture their own drivers. They don’t even assemble them in-house. They “custom-design” them and then have them “made exclusively for them.” Look at the lit from your favorite super-duper speaker company. They’ll almost all say something along those lines.

But, man, that’s a gap you can drive a Mack truck through!

This is not meant to denigrate the design process or the good intentions of most speaker companies. The better companies have extensive in-house design and virtual modeling capabilities, and most good companies have extensive measurement and evaluation capabilities as well. It’s just that with the realities of today’s economics and labor costs, it’s simply less expensive to do the actual manufacturing overseas—usually in China.

Therefore, the process usually goes something like this: The project’s design engineers—working from Marketing’s Product Definition of what they need, and why, in order to be successful in the marketplace—determine whether or not they need new drivers for the project, or whether existing drivers from past products will suffice.

Let’s say Marketing has requested a bookshelf speaker that is no bigger than .6 cubic foot interior volume (about 1000 cu.in.) with a maximum depth dimension of 12 inches, so it will actually fit on a bookshelf. But Marketing had determined through its research that of its main competitors at +/- $100 of the project’s target retail price, none goes lower than -3 dB at 55 Hz. So Marketing waves its hand towards Engineering and says, “Give me a bookshelf speaker that hits -3 dB at 45 Hz, so we can brag about a legitimate, audible difference. And don’t make it need a ton of power in a small box—we need a sensitivity of at least 86 dB 2.83 V at 1M. And don’t bust the budget by requiring a huge expensive magnet to give you the Bl. Oh, and we need it in 6 months, in time for the holidays. When can I hear the first prototype?”

After several single-malts, the engineers realize that they need a brand new woofer. So they painstakingly design one that optimizes all the variables, closes the VC gap to a small enough dimension that the magnetic field in the gap will be strong enough even with a normal-sized magnet to hit the sensitivity target (a small VC gap dimension is tougher to manufacture, but they’ll hold the vendor’s feet to the fire), uses a very compliant surround and spider so the FAR can be kept low even though the cone’s mass has to be light to maintain sensitivity (all these conflicting requirements—welcome to the engineer’s nightmare world!), and so on.

single malt.jpg

The design is finally complete and they send the specs and requirements off to the driver vendor overseas. Now they wait to see what they get back. It’s always a surprise, and not usually a good one.

Three prototype woofer samples come in after waiting for 6 weeks. They’re way off. The FAR is too high. The VC gap is too large. The magnet is too bulky. The FR has a bad 6 dB spike at 1500 Hz because of an edge reflection. It seems as if the driver vendor just disregarded all the subtle design aspects the U.S. speaker company sent them and simply sent back some off-the-shelf woofers.

That’s exactly what they did, of course.

Many overseas driver vendors—even the well-known “brand-name” driver companies that hobbyists are oh-so-impressed with—will try to take the easy route first. They try this because many times it works. If the driver is “close enough,” the US company can work with it and make it all come out OK by manipulating the crossover or some other design detail.

But if the U.S. company really pushes back hard, then the driver vendor will get to work and deliver what was specified in the first place. (To the best of their ability, anyway. The language barrier is ruinous in many instances when trying to communicate subtleties and many driver vendors suddenly can’t understand English when they’re asked to do something time-consuming, detailed, or difficult. They all understand English perfectly well, however, when it comes time to read their invoice and pay them.)

The corrected woofer prototypes finally come in. They look great. They measure nicely. The U.S. company is excited because they see a successful path to the project’s completion. The two companies execute a formal agreement that this driver is the exclusive intellectual property of the two of them alone, and the vendor will not make or sell this driver to anyone else.

But the driver vendor announces that these woofers are difficult to make, so they’ll cost 30% more than the original target. The first ones they sent in (the ones that were way off, totally unusable) are priced exactly at the target cost.

Welcome to the real world of product development. This is how it goes. Do you “eat” the cost increase and make no money on the product? Do you raise the retail price and lose your marketplace advantage? Do you split the difference?

After going through all this aggravation and finally getting their design built correctly, many speaker companies feel they’ve earned the “right” to say, “Hey—it’s our driver!” This is where the vast majority of “make our own drivers” claims come from.

Aaaah, but there’s one thing—remember that “formal agreement” we just spoke about, the one that said the driver vendor would not make or sell this driver to anyone else? Well, that was true, but with one huge caveat: “…. as long as the Speaker Company agrees to purchase at least xx,xxx units per year.” If the Speaker Company misses that purchase agreement by even one unit, you’ll see those things showing up in every catalog and on-line supplier there is. Often, it’ll be pretty darn obvious whose driver it originally was—that adds immeasurably to the attraction and salability of the item. The overseas driver vendor is in business to make a profit selling drivers. They invest a lot of their time and expertise developing the production methods, the tooling, everything. They base their projected return on the sale of xx,xxx units in order to amortize their costs. If the original Speaker Company doesn’t buy them, they’ll sell them somewhere else. Anywhere else as you can see in the example below courtesy of Dayton Audio. 

Many times, a vendor will modify the "exclusive" driver ever so slightly, to 'keep the door open' for their original customer to get back in their good graces. Future work is at stake and the overseas vendor has an eye on not ticking off their US or Canadian or UK customer to the point where that company will go to a different Chinese vendor next time they need a custom driver. This Dayton tweeter is a good example of that likely being the case: close enough in appearance and general specs to have the lure and appeal of the big-name company that used the driver, but just enough different that both the vendor and the original company can say that it's not the exact same driver. This is the delicate balancing act--the tug-of-war--that happens every day behind the scenes.

 dayton.jpg

Dayton Audio 1” DC-25T Titanium Dome Tweeter

The painstaking design of a truly original driver, the evaluation of six rounds of prototypes, the feedback, the trying again until it’s finally right, that’s a totally legitimate process and the designing Speaker Company in the U.S. or Canada or the UK has every right to call that unique design “their” driver. It is their driver.

But, there are other, lesser levels of “we make our own drivers” these days, and some of them are kind of, well, sleazy.

Driver vendors have huge inventories of parts that can be customized to any company’s needs. Many times, a company will go to their vendor and say, “We need blue metallic cones.” It’s the exact same woofer as the one with the black poly cone, but this one was molded in blue metallic. Looks different, but performs the same and costs the same (or maybe a few cents more.) Same with tweeters—you can get a “metallic look” on a standard cloth dome, by doing a quick vapor-deposit spray with some silver-look paint. Voilá! Instant “metallic” dome.

“Our exclusive tweeter was custom-engineered by our in-house design team to provide the quickness and transient characteristics of the best metal domes, while retaining the critical self-damping traits of a cloth dome. The result is exquisite detail and sparkle, but without the harshness usually associated with conventional metal domes.”

Wow. Sounds impressive. “Our exclusive tweeter.” Yup, we approved the paint color from the six paint samples they sent us. Now it’s “our” tweeter.

Conclusion

DriversAs you can see, the concept of “making our own drivers” has changed quite a bit over the years. However, there is nothing inherently wrong or bad about using commercially-available drivers. There are so many driver companies making so many different drivers at all price/performance levels in every conceivable configuration that a talented—and resourceful!—speaker designer can undoubtedly find the drivers he needs to suit almost any requirement.

Sometimes you design your own, and you call it “your” driver. Sometimes you look for something already available and use it with perfectly excellent results. In the end, it’s the skill and vision of the product’s designer that determines the quality of the sound, regardless of where or how the drivers were built.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

Electrodynamic posts on August 25, 2013 00:34
On a good note, the give-a-way is back in full force. It is not illegal. I will give a way an IB 24" and a BM mkIV prototype woofer to those who donated to the MS Foundation.
Electrodynamic posts on August 25, 2013 00:25
cpp, post: 984233
I was looking at your site and was attempting to pull up the “ About Us” to find out a little more about the company but I can't seem to pull it up.. Using Firefox and Chrome

Odd because I can pull it up just fine using Chrome. http://stereointegrity.com/images/aboutus.jpg
cpp posts on August 24, 2013 07:57
Electrodynamic, post: 984216
My sites have been edited due to your post. There never was a “pay us an you are entered into a raffle”. All proceeds went towards MS research. No amount of money went to the company or myself. And no one who gives/gave to the charitable MS organization will have a chance to get anything from us.

I was looking at your site and was attempting to pull up the “ About Us” to find out a little more about the company but I can't seem to pull it up.. Using Firefox and Chrome
cpp posts on August 24, 2013 07:49
Chu Gai, post: 983753
Electrodynamic, I checked your company's webpage and noticed you're running a raffle with a prize. Unless the laws are different in your state, which you should look into, you have to be a non profit organization with the proper credentials to actually do this. What you probably can do is to run a sweepstakes but then people would not be obligated to purchase anything or make a donation.



Is Your Fundraising Raffle Legal in Your State? | NALS…the association for legal professionals
Electrodynamic posts on August 24, 2013 00:18
Chu Gai, post: 983753
Electrodynamic, I checked your company's webpage and noticed you're running a raffle with a prize. Unless the laws are different in your state, which you should look into, you have to be a non profit organization with the proper credentials to actually do this. What you probably can do is to run a sweepstakes but then people would not be obligated to purchase anything or make a donation.

My sites have been edited due to your post. There never was a “pay us an you are entered into a raffle”. All proceeds went towards MS research. No amount of money went to the company or myself. And no one who gives/gave to the charitable MS organization will have a chance to get anything from us.
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